On to Chengdu and Chinese Hot Pot

Trip Start Jul 22, 2011
Trip End Aug 12, 2011

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What I did
Kuan-zhai Lane

Flag of China  , Sichuan,
Monday, August 1, 2011


There is a saying that the Chinese

-      Eat everything in the sky except a plane

      Eat everything in the sea except a boat

      Eat everything on land with four legs except a table

On our way to the airport to catch our flight to Chengdu, we stop in at a local supermarket for Chinese tourists called "Da Tang Lin Ka".  We had asked Helen, our China Highlights guide, about an appropriate gift for a special friends' relatives who we are having dinner with tonight.  She has suggested that they may enjoy Tibetan tea and this place for its selection and prices.    As our car turns into the parking lot, a security officer stands at attention on a platform and gives us a military salute.  We are confused but Helen says that the salute is a sign of thank you for coming.  We’ve never seen this before and think it’s a nonverbal, polite way of communicating.  In the U.S. we might see a sign which is much more efficient, but here in China it seems that people’s jobs are preserved by saying thank you in this manner.

As we walk into the main entrance we are greeted with statues of a yak and bull with prayer flags.  This is another clue that we’re in for a different experience.   Harvey rushes off to find a bathroom that he finds out has no western toilets.  Apparently he had enough of an emergency that he learns to adapt very quickly.  Let’s just say that aim is very important.

A few steps further through a doorway and we enter the actual store that is a feast for the senses.  The fresh cooked section is immediately in front of us with samples of yak meat and mushrooms for tasting with an aroma that I couldn’t begin to describe.  I take out my iphone to snap some photos and I manage to get just one before a man walks up to me and motions me to stop.  I’m sorry that it’s blurry, but it’s the only one I could get!  Helen thinks that they are concerned about their trade secrets.  A photo is worth a thousand words, and for the sake of brevity I will say that the variety of the meats, spices, dried mushrooms, candies, herbs, breads, jewelry and tea was amazing.  Just imagine using the photo as a springboard!  We chose what we thought was a very good Tibetan tea that we hope will be an appropriate gift for this evening.

At the airports, our China Highlights guides leave only after they see us pass through security.   At the Jiuzhaigou airport luggage security, my suitcase doesn’t pass the screening; I am told to take out the camera batteries and put them in my backpack.  Now we proceed to security for the departure gates.  The guard would not allow Harvey’s medication that is in the form of a pump bottle to pass and insisted that it had to go into our checked luggage.  We had the box from the pharmacy with the prescription information, but this would not be acceptable.  Some other passengers who were bilingual explained that we could not put the medicine in the luggage because if it were lost, he could not function and we can’t get it in China.   Both Harvey & I were quietly, internally feeling a sort of panic about being separated from the medication.  We were making no headway and Helen grew concerned.  She asked security if she could come and translate for us and they allowed this.   Harvey applied some on his skin so they could see the gel’s consistency.  Now we learn that if the medicine were taken through the mouth it would be acceptable but since this is applied on the skin it was not permitted on board.  We recall a TripAdvisor post by SoBeSparky where he stated that polite persistence goes a long way.  So with Helen’s help we ask to speak with a supervisor.  The voices of both Helen and the supervisor are getting louder and Harvey tries to calm them and smiles and his rudimentary Mandarin.  We get the impression that the supervisor is looking for a compromise and to save face.  I think that he was amused at Harvey’s crude attempts at a conversation in Chinese, and he figured that if he was going to get Harvey to understand, without translation, we might be there a long time.  Eventually we are allowed to pass and say thank you many times and shake hands.  Whew.  We say our farewell to Helen again.  She is a gem.

We calm down as we wait for our flight to depart.  All flights are delayed because of fog so we are hanging out and settle into people watching.  In the ladies room, as I am waiting my turn, I hear a quiet “hello” and when I turn around I can’t tell who among the six women has spoken so I smile to them all.  A few minutes later I hear another “hello” and this time I see a shy young girl who is being encouraged by her mother to come out of hiding behind her.  I say “ni hao” to the young girl.  The mother says “nice to meet you” and got the young girl to repeat.  Moments like this make the ordinary experience of going to a bathroom a memorable event!

It only took a few minutes around 9:50 AM for the clouds to suddenly lift so we could see the surrounding mountains.  When the first plane arrives, people run to the windows and cheer.   Our plane finally arrives and we quickly are boarded and on our way to Chengdu.

Our guide in Chengdu, Vivian, gives us a brief overview saying that the name means “becoming a capital” which it was in the Shu Dynasty.  The city has 2,500 years of history.  It has 10 million people while Sichuan province has 90 million.  We’re back at a reasonable elevation of 500m.  We see a lot of electric bikes as motorcycles are not allowed within the three ring roads that surround Chengdu.  We also see the fanciest cars so far on this trip, Porsche, BMW, Mercedes.     Our friend’s brother who we are to meet tonight called on our cell when we were in the air. When he couldn’t reach us he called his sister, Dawei, in the states and she called her husband Ming, Harvey’s math professor and friend, who is currently in China.  Ming calls and says,  “Where are you?”   International coordination for dinner!  We agree on a time that they will meet us at our hotel.  It is really nice of them to take us out to dinner and we are really looking forward to it!

In planning our trip we chose Chengdu to see the pandas that we’ll be seeing tomorrow, but this afternoon we are scheduled to get a feel for Chengdu.  Since our plane was late we were pretty hungry and ready for lunch.  It was already around 2:00 and we were going to have a large dinner that night.  Our guide wanted to visit a couple of sites before lunch, but Harvey decided that Vivian needed to adjust her thinking.  Some of our guides were more flexible than others.

We visit the Qingyang Temple, one of the most famous Taoist temples in China.  As soon as we walked through the entrance gate into the landscaped garden there was a sense of time travel, leaving the hustle and bustle of the street and passing into this area of calmness.  There is a teahouse on the property and it could have been fun to linger and watch locals drinking tea and playing board games.  But with our delayed flight, we passed this by and continued on to the Kuan-zhai Lane.    

Kuan-zhai Ancient Lane has been renovated into tea shops, restaurants, boutiques and outdoor cafes.  We came upon a photography exhibition of areas of Sichuan province.  As we look at the photos, Harvey is concerned that I am already planning our next trip to China.  A photographer with a big white Canon lens and body asks Vivian if she can take photos of us for a tourist brochure that they are developing.  We agree and ask if she will send us the photos, since our big camera is not working, which she did that very evening.  Many of the shops are like going into art galleries.  In one, we saw hand stitched embroidered pocketbooks, in another embroidered leather pillows that look like art rather than craft.  I am surprised because I associate mass produced products with China and it’s great to see such creative and skillful hand made products as well.  The people-watching is just great – have you ever seen people having their ears cleaned in sidewalk stalls?  We meet a westerner and start a conversation.  He is from Australia but married a girl from Chendu and is living here.  Vivian takes us into a museum to see one of the original homes in this hutong that was lived in by the Li Family.  This courtyard home has been renovated and provides an explanation of everyday life here in the 1930’s as we walk through the living room, entertaining room, bedroom, study and kitchen.  It was an interesting counterpoint to the Beijing hutong home that was much less elaborate.

At the designated time we meet Dawei’s brother and sister-in-law, Shao Wen Sheng and Feng Ying in the front of our hotel.  Immediately after introductions, they give us the largest peaches with the stems and leaves still attached that we have ever seen.  There is an aroma from them so they must be very fresh and ripened on the tree.  I wish you could smell them.  Harvey said “oh my God”.  Dawei had mentioned peaches to us when we had talked about our trip months ago, and it is incredibly thoughtful to have remembered and for them to bring these for us.  Thank goodness we brought a gift with us!

The restaurant they chose was the Gallery Bridge Hotpot Restaurant.  Chengdu is known for its hotpot and we expect that we will have a typical hotpot dinner.  Wrong.  We are in for an extraordinary eating adventure.  We are ushered into a private dining room and they talk with the waiter as they look through the menu.  After it is set, Shao Wen Sheng pours the special five kinds of corn wine called Wu Liang Ye into small glass beakers.  It is 52% proof!  Typical white rice wine is called Bai Jiu.  This is the super duper good stuff only available for purchase through connections.   We then pore the wine from the beakers into our glasses about the size of a shot glass.  We make a toast and drink our first shot glass, you drink it all at once – no sipping.  When the glass is empty, Shao Wen Seng refills our glasses.  Shao Wen Seng and Feng Ying are encouraging Harvey to speak all Chinese tonight and Harvey is translating for me.  This is great practice and he seems to be doing fine – this time in China has improved his vocabulary.    Feng Ying is drinking watermelon juice since she is off liquor during her pregnancy.

And then the multi-course meal begins.  Some items are cooked in the kitchen such as the pig’s tail and dumpling dishes that were are our first dishes.  Around this time Harvey starts getting text messages from his friend Ming asking how the meal is going.  He sends texts back telling Ming the menu and they have a running commentary.  I have grown to love dumplings in China.  We weren’t quite sure how to eat the pig’s tail, so we watched and learned.  Most of the items are cooked in the hotpot.  Each item is placed into the oil or the soup made from chicken bone, fish and lobster.  We each have individual bowls that have sesame oil with garlic, chives and parsley.  The waiter puts the vegetables, fish or meat in the hot pot, lets it cook just the right time and then scoops up the items and places them in our individual bowls that have rice.  We are amazed at the variety, flavor and quantity of food.   Hot pot items included the familiar, like the American beef and shrimp with the head & shell on during cooking.  Most were firsts in our lives and were accompanied by “we can’t imagine that we never had” from our hosts:  lotus root, yellow flower, mushrooms and agrocybe (long thick mushroom), mixed meat (like a luncheon meat) and maudo (stomach).  Yes, that’s right, pig’s stomach.  Ming texts to say that he isn’t crazy about pig’s tail but loves the stomach.  What one culture considers a delicacy is so very strange to another culture!  One after one, each was offered from the hotpot.  Shao Wen Sheng’s sister,  Dawei, calls from Miami to check on us.  Everyone wants us to have a great time! 

And between each course, Shao Wen Sheng is filling our glasses with wine and we drink.   At some point Harvey stops drinking, and I keep going.  Later, after we return to Miami, Ming tells Harvey that they were surprised at how well I could hold my liquor – 5 shot glasses of that smooth 5 kinds of corn wine!  For dessert we had umeeshu, which were puffs filled with air, and chrysanthemum tea. 

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